In the beginning, Earth was thought to be the center of the universe. Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy said so, along with a great many others, so till the end of the Middle Ages it had to be true (Photo: Peter Apian, Cosmographia):

Conceptual Depiction of the Ptolmaic Universe.

The Illusionistic Universe Centered on Planet Earth.

 

Then Copernicus (1473-1543) came along and proposed that the sun, not the Earth, held the honor of central place (Photo: Wikimedia):

Copernican Model of the Solar System.

Nicolaus Copernicus Hypothesizes that the Sun Lies at the Center of the Known Universe.

 

Now in the Space Age the universe has no center; or, rather, every star is the center of its own orbital system. Here is an artist’s rendition of what such a stellar disk might look like (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)):

An Artist's conceptual rendition of planetary formation.

Gas, Dust, and Planets Orbit a Conceptual Star During Planetary Formation.

 

Here is an actual radio-telescope array image of a planetary disk about its central star in the constellation we call Taurus. Planets are thought to have swept up the material in the gaps between rings (Photo: Atacama Large Millimeter Array/ESO/NAOJ/NRAO, NSF, Chile):

Radio-telescope array image of planetary formation.

A radio-telescope image of actual planetary formation around a young star in the constellation Taurus.

 

The implosion of stars in on themselves when their gravitational force exceeds the radiative pressure from their fading nuclear engines—that event is what we call a supernova, an extremely bright star that fades in a few weeks’ time. This photo of a supernova that was witnessed by Tycho Brahe was made by the Chandra X-ray Observatory (Photo: NASA/CXC/SAO):

X-ray Image of Supernova Remnant.

X-ray Image of Remnant of Supernova Witnessed by Tycho in 1572.

 

This is the same supernova that Tycho saw in 1572 as rendered in a combination of different wavelengths of visible light (Photo: NASA/Prof. John P. Hughes, Dr. Jeonghee Rho, Dr. Oliver Krause):

Visible-light Image of Tycho Supernova.

Visible-light Image of Supernova Witnessed by Tycho Brahe in 1572.

 

This is a nebula in our southern constellation Carina, a region of star formation fueled by condensing clouds of gas and dust pressed together by the force of gravity. Here is a modern view of creation of the universe, one speck of dust at a time, not as an eternal harmony of perfect motion driven by a prime moving god (Photo: NASA/ESA/M. Livio & Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STSci)):

Creation is not only ongoing, it is now.

A Region in the Constellation Carina Where Clouds of Gas and Dust are Forming New Stars Under Gravitational Pressure.

 

Clouds of gas and dust, remnants of supernova explosion(s), known as the Pillars of Creation. Stars are literally being formed in the pillars of gas and dust shaped by gravity. This is also known as the Eagle Nubula (Photo: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AAURA)/J. Hester, P. Scowen (Arizona State Univ.)):

Star Formation in the Eagle Nebula.

The So-called Pillars of Creation, Columns of Gas and Dust Being Compressed into New Stars.

 

We must take such images as these eight into account in finding meaning in our non-universe of today. That is, in a cosmos that is far more complex than the simple and idealistic image of one-turning (which is what our word “universe” means or implies.)

That old style universe is based on an illusion that projects both Earth’s rotation about its axis and orbit about the sun onto the stars, which are wholly innocent of forcing that illusion upon us. The illusion is our own doing, and has been for more than six thousand years.

Creation is ongoing today, and is a much messier affair than Plato could suggest in his philosophy. The cosmos is not what we think it is; it is what it is in itself. Our assignment, should we accept it, is to bring ourselves into as close agreement with that fact as we are able, given our habitual frailties and fallibilities of mind.

This particular post brings to an end my series of posts illustrating human engagements in the case of baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars. My job from here on is to discuss the way-stations along my introspective journey as illustrated in these recent posts, then present a brief summary of what conclusions I have been able to draw.

 

Advertisements

The stars that we are born to in the twenty-first century are not that different from the stars our ancestors have been born to for hundreds of generations. But the cultural setting within which we view those stars today is entirely new in the history of the Earth.

Both our perception of the stars and the ways we think of them within our various fields of understanding—astrology, astronomy, astrophysics, theology, mysticism, art, and so on—vary from place to place, time to time, so that stars have a very human history culminating in the mind of each person living today.

Consciousness is as much a matter of cumulative life experience as it is of perception and memory. Our personal experience is influenced by our natural experience, as well as our cultural, communal, and familial experience.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night conveys some small part of his personal experience of the stars. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope details other aspects of the stars that most of us have never personally experienced or imagined. Perspectives available to us today simply did not exist only a few decades ago.

Yet we are the progeny of stars themselves, and cannot be anatomically, physiologically, or psychologically separated from their influence on our innermost mental and physical being. We are born of the stars as well as to them. In a very real sense, the stars ‘R us. We are star stuff up and walking around, ogling our extended family spread through the universe.

That is no poetic dream. The atoms we are made of were forged in supernova explosions that cast those atoms into space, where gravity took over and condensed those same atoms into a mass so dense that they ignited to form a new stellar system, together with a retinue of planets that included what we now call Earth, our home in space for all the days of our lives.

It is fitting that throughout history every tribe and people has paid homage to the stars. The Sumerians did it according to their lights in Mesopotamia, Plato did it his way in Greece, the Neoplatonists in Alexandria, and now NASA, a governmental agency, spends billions of dollars in paying homage to the stars, planets, asteroids, comets, and meteors of today.

The meaning that every generation projects onto the stars is a salute to our origins as couched in the meaningful terms of the day. The stars have always had place on the leading edge of human understanding. The stars have not changed all that much, but our understanding is now undergoing an exponential growth spurt that leaves our past understanding lagging far behind.

We used to put haloes around the heads of our saints to signal their divinity (connection to the stars). We built Gothic cathedrals to seat our bishops that had stained-glass windows dedicated to the zodiac, and mechanical clocks with rotating symbols of the twelve zodiacal houses, again to show honor to the stars as we interpreted them in Mediaeval times. Those cathedrals served as models of the supposed celestial hierarchy worked in stone, with their vaults shining down on the seat of the bishop below, and those assembled around him, as if that seat were the throne of reason, order, harmony, truth, and beauty on Earth.

As Chartres Cathedral was abuilding in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote (in Latin) of the stars: “Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God.” The prime mover that drove the universe was as alive in our formative era as it had been in the days of Pseudo-Dionysius, Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato and, before him, the Sumerians.

What all that effort achieved, rather than making a place for humanity in the stars’ cosmic scheme, was assign them their place in our psychic scheme, so having us ride our own coattails round and round, as if tied to a peg driven into the ground, setting us back for well over five thousand years in solving the world puzzle from inside our respective black boxes.

But that peg in the ground has been yanked up by a succession of new thinkers: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Einstein, and many others who have built the new cosmology of today that recognizes the stars for what they are in themselves and not merely the due we thrust upon them out of our own needs.

The idea of binding our lives back to the orderly motion of the stars is one of the most profound realizations that the human mind has ever entertained. We have evolved to appreciate the patterns, brightness, and motions of the stars at night; that should suffice. We need not look for a message coming from them any more than we look to a mockingbird or giraffe for truth. If we truly honored the stars, we would celebrate their gift of light and energy, so receiving them as they give themselves to us without overlaying our psychic needs on their radiance.

We don’t look for messages from baseball or Roget’s Thesaurus, yet we freely engage with them as valuable aspects of our experience. Why impose such a burden on the stars in order to fit them into our scheme of things? Instead, we should do everything we can to live in harmony with the natural world, of which stars are one of the highest and most eminent expressions.

At this point I can hear my Quaker friend Ken Doyle stepping in to tell his joke about the three baseball umpires being interviewed by a reporter after the big game. How do they go about making such difficult and often controversial calls as their duties require them to?

The first umpire says, “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” The second says, “I calls ‘em as they are.” The third umpire says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I calls ‘em.”

Each umpire does the job his own way in light of his personal belief, as each player plays, and each fan roots, everyone in the stadium giving as he or she is able to give, and receiving a like gift from everyone else.

Like the three umpires, artists, scientists, and theologians see with different eyes. As do the young, the mature, and the elderly. The Sumerians saw the stars their way, Plato saw them his way, Pseudo-Dionysius his way. It is unrealistic to sort through them in trying to decide which is right. They are all right and all wrong in some respects.

But under the circumstances, they each were true to their perceptions, judgments, actions, and life engagements—to their minds and personal experience. Our predecessors have borne witness to the stars as only they could at that time in that place. What more could we ask? It is now our turn to see them through our own eyes. That, now, is something to celebrate. As well as an obligation to right the wrongs of the past.

Tomorrow: photos of the heavens from our modern point of view, so ending this review of human engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and most recently, the stars.

Plato’s cosmology did not die with him but was developed and given new life by his followers such as Aristotle, who broadcast a sharpened image of the prime mover at the center of a universe of stars moving about him in a procession of celestial grandeur.

A Latin translation of the Timaeus found fertile ground among Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria in the third century of our current era, philosophers who subsequently joined Plato’s idealism to Jewish, Christian, and Roman thought, producing a grand image of the heavenly host spread before the mind’s eye for human guidance and edification.

Dionysius (Denys, Dennis) the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius, second century CE, six centuries after Plato), a Neoplatonist with a theological bent, has left us an ornate depiction of the cosmos combined with a religious structure mirroring the heavens in the hierarchy of the Christian church here on Earth.

Dionysius depicted God’s retinue in heaven as divided into a celestial hierarchy of three tiers of heavenly minds placed there for our instruction and imitation here below (a scheme similar to that proposed by the Sumerians–see Post 474).

The purpose, then, of Hierarchy is the assimilation and union . . . with God having Him Leader of all religious science and operations, by looking unflinchingly to His most Divine comeliness, and copying. . . its own followers as Divine images, mirrors most luminous and without flaw, receptive of the primal light and the supremely Divine ray, and devoutly filled with the entrusted radiance, and . . . spreading this radiance ungrudgingly to those after it, in accordance with the supremely Divine regulations. . . .

All of which culminates in a grand summary that emphasizes the power that drives the stars in their harmonious orbits:

He, then, who mentions Hierarchy, denotes a certain altogether Holy Order, an image of the supremely Divine freshness, ministering the mysteries of its own illumination in hierarchical ranks, and sciences, and assimilated to its own proper Head as far as lawful. (From The Celestial Hierarchy, Caput III, Section II, 1899, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/areopagite_13_heavenly_hierarchy.htm, Accessed Nov. 2, 2013.)

For Dionysius, Plato’s cosmos had become a divine holy order immediately accessible to those who would not only contemplate, but obey the directives of its radiance. A strongly prescriptive and mystical tone had crept into the story, comprehensible only to those instructed in decoding such language. But behind the language, the stars can still be seen to shine as clearly and brilliantly as they do overhead on a moonless night through dry air.

The Neoplatonists gave stellar radiance a finely divided and philosophical series of orderly distinctions which they bound into a philosophy centered on a single, luminous, but hidden central God surrounded by ever-larger ranks of heavenly powers, commonly regarded as angels or angelic messengers, the whole troupe of heavenly luminaries being divided into a concentric hierarchy of ever-finer gradations that were meaningful to the informed (indoctrinated) mind.

Dionysius carried his argument to finer levels than most of us care to consider, as if he got points for the number of distinctions he was able to make, creating a lot of confusion and overlap in the process under the guise of devotional scholarship.

His overall scheme, however, divided the celestial hierarchy into three levels, each level composed of three further sub-levels. Beginning tightly around the “Divine Hiddenness” (or prime mover) at the center, the celestial powers or angels are divided into,

  1. a highest, brightest, and hottest circle of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. a second circle farther out divided into somewhat lower, dimmer, cooler groupings of “Heavenly Minds,” Lordships, Powers, and Authorities, or alternatively, Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. with a lesser group of angels in the outer reaches of heaven, those concerned with human welfare and obedience, encompassing Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

And complementing the celestial hierarchy in heaven, Pseudo-Dionysius depicted three Earthly triads intended to enforce the dictates of heaven upon the faithful below:

  1. symbolic sacraments—Baptism, Communion, and Consecration of the Holy Chrism;
  2. holy orders—Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons;
  3. together with Monks in a state of perfection, Initiated Laity in a state of illumination, and Catechumens in a state of purification.

These Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchies were a late melding of Neoplatonic ideas with orthodox Christian theology to produce a mystical union of ideas and ritual acts as a blend of philosophical and theological strands to produce a wholly spiritual system of human belief rooted firmly in a personal faith, often embracing incompatible aspects, very much like the state Plato found himself in while penning the Timaeus as his last word on creation of the universe and its cosmology.

Shining through the mists of such doctrines, however, is the awe with which people in every age have gazed upon the stars. Our reward is not so much hearing what the stars would say to us if they could speak, but ideas which we unabashedly put in their mouths so that we take from them what we need to hear.

That is the essential point to be made regarding our perennial engagement with the stars: we make of them what we will, and call it the truth. And that is exactly how our minds work, finding little else but variations upon what we are looking for, be it confidence, comfort, succor, authority, charity, gentility, or whatever quality we need to balance the turmoil (chaos) of daily life. The stars are up there for our free and personal use. Living the difficult lives we do here below, we rely on their guidance as needed.

In my next two posts I will wrap up this section on our popular engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars by seeing our take on the stars through Mediaeval times into the space age of today. Then in future posts I will shift to discussing where I hope to have taken readers on our wayfaring together over the past 150 or so posts, leading to the conclusions I will leave you with regarding my views of consciousness, mind, and engagement as draw from the personal journey I have made across the past eighty-two years.

What intrigues me about Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is how hard it is to reconcile the observable order of the universe with human understanding of that same order. The problem is much like our modern struggle to fit our experience of our own minds with our understanding of the brain that is thought to be largely responsible for those minds in the first place.

In the Timaeus,

  1. First, there is Plato who authored the dialogue to explain his understanding of the cosmos as essentially harmonious.
  2. Second, there is the narrator, Timaeus, in whose words the cosmos is presented and explained.
  3. Third, there is the mythical craftsman, Timaeus’ agent for creating the stars, planets, and Earth as one coherent system.
  4. Followed by the mechanical (and problematic) model of the cosmos from which the craftsman works as a kind of armillary sphere, a model derived from human study of the cosmos itself.
  5. And of course the several translators of the Timaeus, each of whom applies his own perspective and familiarity with Plato’s use of the ancient Greek language.

Taken together with the cosmologies of other ancient philosophers, all leading to the confusion in my mind resulting from my effort to fit Plato into my discussion of what our engagements with the stars reveal about our impulse to find meaning in the stars, whether we know anything about them or not.

And now I have to consider the effects on any of my readers who might try to make sense of the ongoing engagement between human minds and the stars.

The central problem comes down to a glitch in Timaeus’ presentation of the relationship between stars, planets, Earth, and human’s viewing the stars overhead.

  1. The thrust of Timaeus’ argument is that the stars and constellations as mapped onto the cosmos all share in the same coherent system as demonstrated by their harmonious, circular motions.
  2. Except that Earth rotates west-to-east on its axis, while the stars seem to pass east-to-west about the celestial pole.
  3. The two motions in opposite directions cancelling out any need to explain the apparent motion of the stars. Earth’s rotation explains the illusion.
  4. While exactly that explanation is the essential point of the whole cosmic structure that Timaeus presents on Plato’s behalf in insisting on a world soul that unifies the so-called universe as one coherent system driven from the center by godly force.

The celestial craftsman takes pains to create a system in which stars-planets-Earth all move in rational order in conformity with the idea of circular motion in the same direction being the only proof and criterion for the system as a divine whole.

But that isn’t how the universe works. The stars appear to move one way, while Earth rotates in the opposite direction. Plato and his creator-craftsman can’t have it both ways. That wouldn’t fit with Plato’s idea of the world-soul uniting stars-planets-Earth into one perfect system.

So what did he do, the greatest philosopher of all time? He had his cake and ate it too. He let the discrepancy ride for what it was. He shrugged and walked away. That is, he left behind him the unsubstantiated faith that everything would work out all right.

Which is consistent with his belief in men and women forming two mutually exclusive orders of society despite all evidence to the contrary. He doesn’t quibble about both men and women being necessary parts of a unified system. He just settles for a duality as how society is structured in his day with women on a lower level than men.

The moral of this tale is that the more elaborate philosophical systems become, the more likely they are to be inconsistent within themselves, the more prone to error, the more apt to be wrong. And the philosopher more apt to muddle through vaguely because having gotten in over his head, he has no choice but to become an apologist for his own way of thinking.

Even the greatest philosophers are fallible human beings. Particularly when trying to prop-up the foundations of false or dubious beliefs. Beliefs so perfect they ought to be true. It is far easier to believe that the apparent motion of the stars along circular routes through the heavens is due to observers on Earth moving counter to those routes, making the harmonious motion of the stars an illusion projected by human minds onto the heavens.

It was an illusion for the Sumerians, an illusion for the Greeks, and is today an illusion for us, even though we take photographs of star trails by putting cameras on tripods pointed upwards while leaving the shutter open for hours on end.

But it was not an illusion for the priests and philosophers whose livelihoods depended on a cosmological system maintained by adherence to that mistaken belief. Adherence to an idea in their minds being projected onto the stars because it suited the stories they told about a prime mover driving the stars through the heavens, about stars forming the retinue of such a divine being, about planets being angelic messengers bearing commands and prophecies straight from the prime mover to his faithful flock below, and about members of that flock having an obligation to discover profound meaning in precisely the appearances of those relative motions as seen from below.

Whoee! what a ride it is to go to such lengths to devote your one life to such wrong beliefs. And to defend such beliefs against all who doubt them. Or even to burn them as heretics at the stake, as we nowadays kill them with bursts of fire from AK-47s or drone-fired rockets.

Would those who so earnestly instruct us believe in an untruth or out-and-out lie? Unthinkable. Heretical. Grounds for doing battle to stamp out all such contrary beliefs. The rest is the history of the world as told by-and-to gullible human minds.

The stars are a gleaming mirror in the sky giving us back a reflection of our own enticing yet mistaken ideas and beliefs.

 

The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.

412. Introspection

January 22, 2015

My understanding of my own mind is based almost exclusively on introspection—looking within. The gleanings of that inner search are the topic of this blog. The issue is, how do my findings stand up against your view of your own mind?

In 1953, Edwin G. Boring, professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote a detailed history of introspection. In it he included this seemingly dismissive summation:

[L]iterally immediate observation, the introspection that cannot lie, does not exist. All observation is a process that takes some time and is subject to error in the course of its occurrence (A History of Introspection, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 50, No.3, May, 1953, page 187).

Rather than as a dismissal, I take those words as a challenge to study, through introspection, the errors I make in my everyday perceptions. That study has led to discovery and development of the ideas on which this blog is based. Those errors include such incidents as the following.

  • My being struck by a bicyclist going against traffic on a one-way street because I failed to consider that possibility in advance.
  • Driving at dusk in the rain, seeing two motorcyclists putting on black raingear at the side of the road as two cows, in dim light the flicking motion of putting an arm into a sleeve looking to me like the abrupt swishing of a tail.
  • Seeing a dying crow, apparently hit by a car, feebly lifting one wing, which turns into a black trash bag fluttering in the wash of passing cars.
  • Catching a glimpse of sunlight striking the shape of an airplane about to crash into the roofs of Bar Harbor, which at second look turned into a ridgeline TV antenna with swept-back elements.
  • Happily running after my high-school friend Fred walking up Fifth Avenue in New York, only to find an imposter mimicking Fred’s gait while wearing Fred’s characteristic raglan-sleeved overcoat, scarf, hat, and heavy Cordovan shoes.
  • Me, the famous noticer and photographer, not seeing a vase of Mexican sunflowers at the head of the stairs while retrieving my camera so I could go on a walk with my partner. How did you like the sunflowers, she said. What sunflowers? I said.
  • Clouds, nothing but clouds. I am peering from the back seat of the family car as we drive through Eastern Colorado on our way to Seattle in August, 1947, looking for the Rockies, seeing only clouds. Which, half-an-hour later, become snow on the very mountains I yearn to see, but am blind to because I’m not used to snow in late summer.
  • Glancing up icy Holland Avenue, seeing a man applying pressure with his hips, moving side-to-side, scraping paint off his house in midwinter, a scene that abruptly morphs into a cedar tree blowing in the wind.
  • As a budding archaeologist, carefully scraping soil off a human skull I’ve uncovered on the Nespelum Indian Reservation along the Columbia River in 1950, I twist my toothbrush carefully to clear an eye hole under the heavy brow. “Whatcha’ got there, Steve? Looks like some kind of turtle,” says my supervisor, who has come to check on me.
  • After five minutes of hearing a husky voice shout “Fa, fa, fa,” in the middle of the night, I finally realize he’s shouting “Fire” in a Boston accent, so rush to the phone to dial 911.
  • Screening the photos of granite quarrying I’ve just taken, I really like the one of lighting the torch powered by diesel fuel and compressed air with flames shooting six feet out of the long pipe. I’m so excited about the prospect of PhotoShopping them, when asked if I want to delete all the photos from my camera, assuming I’ve saved them to my hard drive automatically, as I always do, I deleted them—only to realize that I had not, in fact, saved them to my computer.
  • I felt extremely uncomfortable when the lecturer on sex education looked directly at me all during her talk. Afterwards, I asked why she singled me out. “You look just like my son,” she said.
  • And so on.

In explaining to myself how I could make all those mistakes, I got to know myself in a wholly new way by taking full responsibility for everything that happened, including my take on the context of what was going on. It is that personal take on consciousness that I am sharing in this blog.

The serial division of inner experience into perception, judgment, and action makes sense to me, as does the ongoing experience (stream of consciousness) idea which unites them with worldly aspects of consciousness into one continuous loop of engagement. I view that loop as being driven by a valenced sense of disparity (toward gravity or levity, say, good or bad, yes or no) between what I intend to do and what actually happens, providing a conscious sense of the degree and direction of refinement I need to make in order to bring about a desirable relationship with my surroundings.

Now that I am turning my attention to the external portions of my loops of engagement on the four parallel levels of Nature, Culture, Community, and Family as I depicted them in my previous post (No. 411), I want to stress the fact that I am in no way privy to the world as it is, so am still reliant on introspection to present my internal views of what I think the world is like from my current perspective.

As always, all I have to work with is my side of the story. This is precisely the point that I believe many people miss in conducting their lives as if they had cornered the market in Truth. I know nothing of truth. Truth is a concept. What I have available to me is consciousness as an ongoing process that never comes to rest.

Imagine a blog with no end. A blog that continues forever, always hedging, modifying, improving, changing. That is the story of philosophy and every other human activity. Plato’s reflections are only one of the blogs of his day.

I am merely putting my oar into the waters of changing perspectives. I’ve reached a crucial turning point, so I want to be clear that my method will continue to be the same, even though I am taking on a new dimension of my topic. As before, so from now on: introspection is my guide and navigator.

I’m still the same old wayfarer, on a new phase of my journey.

 

Along with the core psychic dimensions of memory, sensory impressions, understanding, comparison, values, and emotions, another dimension of our personal intelligence situated between perception and action is awareness of extension and duration provided by the sense of spacetime as the medium of experience.

Perception from a stable point of view—such as from a seat in a theater or stadium with the gaze fixed on one spot, or while listening to music with eyes closed—such fixed attention results in awareness of changes over time that are not the result of personal action. These changes in the world exist in the medium we call time.

Action resulting in bodily motions—as walking through woods while brushing branches aside, or slaloming down a steep slope while swinging one’s center of gravity side-to-side—such changes resulting from bodily movements alter the perspective from which we view the world, so those changes are generated by an agent moving through the medium we refer to as space.

Most awareness of change exists in the combined medium of active engagement in which both self and world are changing simultaneously in the combined medium of spacetime when we are both subject and object, actor and perceiver at the same instant in the same place.

Our actions take our minds into the world; our senses invite the world into our minds. When we act and perceive simultaneously, we engage some small part of the world so that we make a difference to it just as it makes a difference to us. In that sense, we participate in the ongoing life of the world while the world affects our innermost selves, creating what I call a loop of engagement in which we are most truly alive.

When our engagements are successful from our point of view, we are flooded with happiness. Think of Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire. When they fail, we feel like we just lost the World Series or presidential election. Gloom and doom descend until we manage to right ourselves and get back on our feet.

Sitting fixed in our seats before a monitor, TV, or film screen, we observe car chases, explosions, and world-changing events without benefit of lifting even a finger, so we walk away without a scratch as if nothing had happened, and we are none the wiser for the time we have spent sitting comfortably in our seats because we have invested so little energy in staying put.

On a treadmill or stationary bike, we can go for miles putting in the effort without a change of scene, ending where we started, putting in our time by the clock, exhausting ourselves, but gleaning not one iota of experience. Treadmills were invented to do work (raise water from ditch to field, grind grain, power bicycles), but exercise machines are made to accomplish nothing at considerable expenditure of energy. We live in a world of phony engagements that take place in no real place and no real time, other than the illusions we create for ourselves while striding manfully ahead or being “entertained.”

Are we any happier for making the effort? If we generate endorphins that lessen our pain or even create a state of euphoria, perhaps we are. But is the world any happier at being left out of our one-sided exercise? Is Ginger any happier when Fred dances alone or with someone else?

There is an art to our engagements and that is in sharing our good times and great places with others so that we are happy together and grow closer as a result. We don’t just exist in time and space, but use them to good advantage in creating a more joyful world around us. We extend ourselves and endure to the benefit of not only ourselves but those with whom we share our one Earth, which benefits the Earth as a whole.

Such efforts seat us firmly at the heart of nature, culture, community, and family, so, yes, they are positive and generate happiness as a result. Looking around today’s world, however, we see people in all corners wreaking havoc and destruction by imposing their views on others by force. Such actions do not promote personal engagements but render them impossible, creating enemies of people unknown to one another.

Wise use of the time and place we are born to is the very essence of our lives. According to that scenario, many find happiness, yet billions of people just barely scrape by. Are we here to create the greatest amount of misery we can with what resources we’ve got for the brief span we are allowed under the conditions that prevail? Many act as if that were their creed.

The point of our lives is to prove that can’t be so. We do this through the daily engagements we create in the limited time and space we have available to us. We start by getting out of bed in the morning and being fully ourselves.

Impairments to the intelligent use of time and space include hearing-, vision, and memory-loss; addictions of all sorts; inattention, distraction, set habits, isolation, sensory deprivation, over-stimulation, preoccupation; affective disorders; the full autism spectrum; schizophrenia; disaffection; post-traumatic stress disorder; bipolar disorder; violence; and warfare.

 

Following perception, the next stage of our mental engagement is to put the resulting understanding in the context of our current situation so that a judgment of its meaning or place in our scheme of things prepares us to frame an appropriate response.

The agent performing that judgment in the presence of affect or emotion is what I call the self or situated intelligence at the core of the mind where it serves as mediator between perception and action. The self is the intelligent agent having access to memory, perception, understanding, emotion, and biological values, together with the life force as the metabolic fuel driving us to act on our own behalf in a particular situation.

How the self resolves the various motivations feeding into it by comparing, weighing, and judging their influence is what we call free will.  It is “free” in the sense that each person judges the relative importance of the various motivating forces in the light of her personal experience, the residuum of her having lived this far in her life and earned the right (if not the obligation) to be the person she is.

Free will is nothing else than the gift of learning through experience that evolution equips us with as we face into the situations we encounter, and decide how to respond in light of the teachings of our personal life story.

There is no blanket formula for survival we can all call upon such as insects’ reliance on a small set of pre-programmed instincts; we are under our own recognizance, and have the privilege to decide for ourselves what to do, including calling on the judgment of others when we need their help.

What we call belief is a conceptual summation of the internal forces of motivation which drive us to construe a given situation one way or another. The irony of the situated self is that living within the confines of its particular intelligence in its figurative black box as uniquely suspended between input and output (perception and action), as each of us does, our primary motivators together make up the situation that we occupy at any particular time, so that our operative reality, experienced uniquely by each of us, is a matter of subjective belief.

That is, we construct the situations we find ourselves in from the inherent mental forces that motivate us at the time, and those forces—memory, understanding, imagination, thought, values, emotions, energy level, among many others—are weighed against one another in forming a judgment upon how best to resolve the tension between perception and action in a manner appropriate to that subjective situation.

The world we claim to live in is a high-level abstraction, a concoction of our unique intelligence in its internally-structured situation.

Our subjective reality results from the categorization (interpretation) of impressions as projected upon the energy field that surrounds us, and as such, is subject to a construct or construal for which each of us is wholly responsible.

The world lives in us as much as we live in the world. And that world is largely a matter of subjective, affect-driven belief, not demonstrable fact.

 

374. Brain Talk

December 4, 2014

Brain talk is full of words like data, information, computation, processing, knowledge, and other terms of that noble family of academic abstractions. But seldom do we live up to the expectations of the scientists and engineers who treat the brain as if they had designed it themselves by rational means, which they didn’t and never could.

Such terms are descriptors of what neuroscientists want to find, not necessarily of what’s there in the brain to discover. That is, neuroscience is salted with metaphors meaningful to those who study the brain, but many of those same terms are wide of the mark set by instinctual users of particular brains as tools for conducting life as a work-in-progress at every stage.

Most of the mass of the brain is made up of axons (connectors) that lead from one nerve cell nucleus to its terminus, not the nuclei, cortical columns, and synapses that actually perform so much of our mental work. It is the chemical flow between nerve cells that brings minds to life, as facilitated by the travel of ionic potentials from cell bodies to their extremities.

The flow of neurotransmitters across synaptic gaps between nerve cells at myriad points of connection enables those chemicals to get to the right place at the right time to activate or inhibit a comparison in synchrony with other signals so that simultaneous connections are sustained between different regions of the brain, furthering the coherent neural traffic we experience as mind, awareness, or consciousness.

Mind is not confined to the brain but reaches through skilled action to the outer limits of the body and, beyond that, via traffic through nature, culture, community, and family, to the cascade of energy impinging on our sensory organs.

Our minds acquire language and numbers because they are born to language and numbers as two of the cultural media in which they are immersed. They acquire a genome and genetic heritage by being born to particular parents who, at conception, consist of one man and one woman who inhabit a particular niche (nest) in the physical world.

Mind is a collaborative function of brain, body, nature, culture, community, and family. It is the seat of our organic intelligence together with  the many situations and active engagements that make up our lives. I think that to call it a computer or data processor is to miss the point of what the mind actually does and how it operates.